Tag Archives: Germany

Now Thank We All our God: Its Amazing Backdrop

Image

 

Now Thank We All our God is a popular Christian hymn that is often sung at weddings and at other times of rejoicing. In Germany, it is sung at times of national thanksgiving. Nun danket alle Gott (its German title) was written by Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), being inspired by Sirach, chapter 50, verses 22-24, from the praises of Simon the high priest. He was born in Eilenberg, Saxony (Germany), a small town near Leipzig, which during the twentieth century ended behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany for several decades. 

Rinkart studied for the Lutheran ministry and was called to be the pastor of his own hometown of Eilenberg. He arrived there just at the start of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a war that would devestate Germany in general and Eilenberg in particular. Being a walled city, it became a place for refugees to flee to and it soon became overcrowded, thus rendering it susceptible to disease. And the result was indeed famine and pestilence. Armies overran it three times. The Rinkart home was a refuge for the victims, even though he was often hard-pressed to provide for his own family. At the start of 1637, the Year of the Great Pestilence, there were four ministers in Eilenberg. But one abandoned his post for healthier regions and could not be persuaded to return. Rinkart officiated at the funerals of the other two ministers. As the only surviving pastor, he performed 40 to 50 funerals per day, some 4,480 in all that year. In May of that same year, his own wife died. By the end of that year, the refugees had to be buried in trenches without services. The plague decimated Eilenberg killing some 8,000 people. 

Yet, amazingly, it is out of such horrific tragedy, that Now Thank We All our God was written around the year 1636. Rinkart was a prolific hymn writer and he did not let the horrors of war, famine and plague deter him from writing praises to our God. Yet the first two stanzas were not written, not as a hymn for public worship, but as table grace for his own family. At the end of the war, Nun danket alle Gott was sung at the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the treaty that ended the war. Rinkart would die the following year in 1649 in Eillenberg. 

It was set to music by Johann Cruger (1598-1662) around 1647 (tune: “Leuthen Chorale”), who composed the music for many other hymns including Ah Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended and  Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness. The hymn tune, Leuthen Chorale is also used in Bach’s cantatas, such as BWV 79, 192 and in his BWV 252, 386 and 657. The now-familiar standardization was devised by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840, when he adopted the hymn, sung in the now-standard key of F Major, with its original German lyrics, as the chorale for his second symphony, known as Lobgesang or “Hymn of Praise.” The Late-Romantic Germanic composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert was one of the more recent composers to use this hymn composing a Marche Triomphale, a famous piece in the classic pipe organ repertoire. After the Battle of Leuthen during the Seven Years War, a soldier of the triumphant Prussian army started to sing it and soon all 25,000 soldiers joined in the hymn. Now that would have been something to hear!

Yet we in the English-speaking world would not have known of this great hymn of the church if it were not for the efforts of Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), an English woman who translated many hymns into English during the nineteenth century. Other hymns she translated are Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness and Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates. 

If Martin Rinkart could sing such a great hymn of thanksgiving during a time of unimaginable horror and upheaval, surely we today, who will most likely not see such tragedy like he did, can do the same. So as we in America celebrate Thanksgiving in a couple weeks, let us remember the amazing account of the Rev. Martin Rinkart and may we, like him, sing with one voice:

Now thank we all our God, with heart, and hands, and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom the world rejoices; who from our mother’s arms hath blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us! with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us; and keep us in his grace, and guide us when perplexed, and free us from all ills in this world and the next.

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given, the Son, who reigns with them in highest heaven, eternal, Triune God, whom earth and heaven adore, for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore. Amen. 

Birth of Christendom: Coronation of Charlemagne (800)

By the dawn of the ninth century, the celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25 was a well-established practice. And so was the odd mixture of Christian content and pagan festivity that so characterizes Christmas celebrations. But something also happened on Christmas day in the year 800 that greatly changed the face of Europe and the course of history in the West.  The turning point happened in Rome at St. Peter’s church. At the end of the day’s main service, Charles, king of the Franks (modern France and much of Germany) rose from praying before the tomb of the apostle. As he did, Pope Leo III walked forward, and in the words of an eyewitness, “the venerable holy pontiff with his own hands crowned Charles with a most precious crown.” Then all the people apparently arose as one and having been told what to say, shouted three times: “Carolo Augusto a Deo coronato, magno et pacifico imperatori, vita et victoria” or in English: “To Charles Augustus, crowned by God, great and peace-giving emperor of the Romans, life and victory.”

Now what happened was not on the same level as the Nicene Council or the founding of the monasteries. If these events had not occurred, the same results would have most likely marked the progress of Christianity during the Middle Ages. But what happened was a dramatic symbol of relationships undergoing permanent change. It also anticipated the future and outlined the shape of Christianity for the next seven or eight centuries.

There was the rise of papal power. Now the coronation of Charlemagne did not represent the height of papal power. But rather a strategic alliance between the papacy’s expanding influence and a political house that was also expanding in influence.

There was also the rise of Northern Europe which had the expansion of Islam to thank for its rise in power and influence. Due to the expansion of Islam in the East, there was a geographic refocusing and a papal willingness to give up the ideals of a Mediterranean Roman Empire for one centered in the North. When the crowds addressed Charles as Augustus, they were evoking the past majesty of Rome. The papacy realized that the connection between Rome and Constantinople was now bankrupt. You therefore had the transition of Western Christianity from a Mediterranean eastern-oriented faith to an strictly European northward-looking faith.

Charlemagne’s grandfather was the famous Charles Martel who led the Franks to victory at Poitiers in 732 and halted the western expansion of Islam. It is no exaggeration to state that Charles Martel and his successors came to be seen as the saviors of Europe. Charles Martel initiated friendly relations with the papacy and his son and grandson succeeded to this alliance between them and Rome. When Pope Leo III crowned Charles emperor, he was only solidifying a connection that had been developing for more than fifty years. The papacy had turned to the north where a new imperial household was emerging. The link with Rome was now secure. For the next eight centuries and more, the politics, learning, social organization, art, law and economics of Europe would be “Christian,” not in the sense of fully incorporating the gospel, but because the fate of the church in the West was so decisively linked with the imperial household across the Alps.

Charlemagne and those who succeeded him bequeathed Christendom to Europe and Christendom would endure as the shape of Christianity in the West. It affected the practice of the Christian faith in every way. Today we regard the sacred and secular spheres separate. But Christendom harmonized those two spheres of life. This ideal was symbolized by the integrated view of life in which everything from politics to religious life was based on the Christian life as communicated by the Church and protected by the actions of secular rulers.

But Christendom did not function with the harmony and efficiency that the ideal suggested. But for all of its failures, Christendom remained a powerful ideal. At the heart of it was the all-encompassing presence of divine grace in every aspect of life. And in practice of this ideal was the cooperation between church and state.

After many centuries, Christendom would be fatally wounded by the Renaissance, Protestantism, the modern nation-state, atheism, and the spread of of the Christian faith beyond Europe. But as a symbol for the inauguration of a new, long-lasting and far-reaching era of Christianity, it is tough to beat the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Day 800.

.Friedrich_Kaulbach_-_Krönung_Karls_des_Großen